The Constella Festival embarks on its second season with stats that veteran music organizations would envy: a lineup of world-class performers, growing and diverse audiences and a budget in the black.
Festival founder and artistic director Tatiana Berman might be diminutive in stature, but when it comes to Constella, she’s herculean. Constella’s season offers an abundance of wildly diverse performances featuring international and local artists in venues throughout downtown Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Met Opera clarinetist Anthony McGill opened the festival and captivating pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet closes out the festival next month. Veteran Jazz trumpet player Lew Soloff, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, composer/pianist Nico Muhly, the Exhale Dance Tribe and an evening of opera round out the schedule.
“I think the curation is just right,” says Muhly, speaking from Los Angeles. “Each evening has a focus. When it’s one artist, the program is what that artist wants to do.” It’s also a festival where fun is an operative word, especially for Muhly and Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
Muhly will be in town for the world premiere of “Organically Charged,” a multimedia composition with Muhly at the piano in NKU’s state-of-the-art Digitorium. A composer, performer, conductor and arranger, Muhly has a dazzling resume of commissions and collaborations, ranging from major orchestras, opera and ballet companies to Grizzly Bear and Usher. He describes his newest piece as “texts taken from a variety of sources, all happening at the same time.”
“Organically Charged” is accompanied by voices, acoustic instruments, pre-recorded electronics and visuals created by artist Jordan Munson, a pioneer in digital and computer imagery. Muhly calls the images “a process that’s visible and invisible, abstract enough that you can ascribe your own meaning. It’s going to be a great evening, a lot of fun.”
He’s eager to return to Cincinnati, noting the diversity of audiences “and how much great music-making is happening. The musicians I worked with were so excellent.” NKU students, along with Berman, violist Joanne Wojtowicz and tenor Grant Knox, will be part of the ensemble.
Piano phenom Jean-Yves Thibaudet is as noted for his fashion sense as he is for the sheer joy and fearlessness he brings to each performance, qualities that came through in a phone conversation last week. When I shared that observation, his response was an enthusiastic “Yeah!”
A seemingly tireless performer, Thibaudet’s appearance is a fortunate conjunction of a cancellation that coincided with Nov. 6, when he performs at Memorial Hall. Commemorating the 150th anniversary of French composer Claude Debussy’s birth, Thibaudet will play an all-Debussy program (“one of my two favorite composers,” he says). Thibaudet is an extraordinary interpreter across the piano rep but his grasp of Debussy, Ravel and Satie is beyond category. If you love Debussy’s “Claire de Lune,” you can’t miss this recital.
Thibaudet shares Nico Muhly’s commitment to audience involvement. “The music energizes me. You’ve been given a talent and you just have to share it with people.”
Performing on election night should add a frisson to evening. Thibaudet assures me “I’ll make sure everyone in the audience has voted.”
In addition to Constella concerts, there are 11 partner events, presented by area ensembles and institutions; everything from the Blue Wisp Big Band to Bi-Okoto African Dance Company, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Classical Revolution, concert:nova and more.
Berman says the partner events are part of Constella’s commitment to collaboration where “everybody wins. This year, several organizations approached me, asking to participate, and I reached out to those I thought would be interesting, like Bi-Okoto.”
Season two incorporates lessons learned from last year and new ventures for this and future seasons. “We took away a lot of good lessons. One of the main things we learned was the importance of doing things in advance,” Berman notes. “We made tickets available in June as opposed to September last year, and we made sure that our partner organizations knew our schedule well in advance.”
Another lesson learned was the importance of staff and a committed board. “Good professional staff is key to professionalizing the festival,” says board president Daniel Hoffheimer. Five part-time staff, including three CCM grad students in arts administration and/or business administration, handle administrative duties. “They are all absolutely incredible,” Berman says. The five-member board is working to cultivate new members, which goes hand-in-hand with building an effective fundraising team.
“We want to free Tatiana to do what she does best: finding and bringing in top musical talent from around the world,” Hoffheimer says.
Berman always envisioned Constella as a festival on par with Aspen and Santa Fe, but for the present, she and her board have their sights on staying in the black and promoting awareness of the festival here at home.
“I’d like to achieve recognition of what Constella is and what it represents, that it features some of the best events to see and hear in the region,” Berman says. “And I want people to realize it’s here to stay.”
“We intend this year and next to be two more steps on a path to create one of America’s great music festivals in one of America’s most musically rich cities,” Hoffheimer says. “Like major festivals, Constella has ambitions to be a $20 million annual economic force, supporting restaurants, hotels and retail.”
Constella is pursuing press and tourist outlets but Berman notes that much of the buzz is through word of mouth. She points out that her Europeans colleagues know of her idea and visit the web site. “That’s the whole idea.”
When I tell Jean-Yves Thibaudet it’s Constella’s second season, he exclaims, “You’re joking! I thought it had been around for a long time.”
“I really tip my hat to her,” he adds, “Especially in these hard times, to do a music festival like this is wonderful.”
“Constella is an amazing thing,” Muhly says. “I wish we had it in New York.”
THE CONSTELLA FESTIVAL runs through Nov. 6. Tickets and information: constellafestival.org.